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Cambridge focuses on developing tadpoles to study mature nerve cells

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A Wednesday electronic release prior-to-print for ‘Development’ journal comes from researchers at University of Cambridge with their focus being on working with mature nerve cells for those who suffer from Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s diseases. Many neurodegenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), though, will benefit from the remarkable find too.

The researchers created a new process to generate mature cells by studying the formation of nerves of developing tadpoles. Stem cells are what have been described as master cells and can continually divide into something new or can repair damaged cells but what Cambridge needed was to find a way to get them aged quicker, be generated in large numbers and be fully functional.

It wasn’t until the researchers produced nerve cells that were mature by adding contrived proteins to human cells that they were able to see success. Lead scientist, Dr. Anna Philpott of the Department of Oncology had this to say, “When you reprogram cells, you're essentially converting them from one form to another but often the cells you end up with look like they come from embryos rather than looking and acting like more mature adult cells. In order to increase our understanding of diseases like Alzheimer's, we need to be able to work with cells that look and behave like those you would see in older individuals who have developed the disease, so producing more 'adult' cells after reprogramming is really important."

The issue began with what is called transcription factor, a protein that binds to specific DNA sequences controlling genetic information from DNA to the RNA, and being able to manipulate the signals. The Cambridge researchers had to find a way to ‘confuse’ that protein into halting the process.

The transcription factor is modified during cell division by phosphate molecules and this works to keep cells young and healthy and this is what they were trying to control. They did it by engineering proteins that couldn’t be modified by the phosphate molecules and added those proteins to the human cells thereby halting the process.

For patients who have issues with MS, and other neurodegenerative diseases, they believe this technique could be used to create mature nerve cells that could be then transplanted into patients. A team of scientists in Bangalore, India had used microinjection in 2009 to transplant nerve cells into brain-damaged rats, showing they had “recovered completely” and intend to keep working through their theories.

The co-author of that study, Dr. Kutty, had said they didn’t intend to stop, as “more studies along these lines using appropriate animal models are required to find definitive answers about the safety and efficacy of such approaches.”

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